Mount Vernon's plan to spend $1.5M to renovate old YMCA draws critics

The Mount Vernon YMCA on South Second Avenue The Mount Vernon YMCA on South Second Avenue closed its doors on Dec. 31 and relocated to a temporary space down the street. All services have been cut except for the after-school program. (Jan. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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When the debt-ridden Mount Vernon Family YMCA closed at the end of 2012, it left behind a dilapidated building in the heart of the city's downtown and a gaping hole in recreational opportunities for young people.

Mount Vernon officials are hoping to fill that void by buying the YMCA building on 20 S. Second Ave. and converting the 133-year-old structure into a city-run recreational facility with short-term housing for low-income families.

Some city officials have criticized the project -- estimated at more than $1.5 million -- in the face of chronic budget gaps and other fiscal woes that have prompted layoffs and service cuts.

Mayor Ernie Davis, who is spearheading the initiative, said the city is in the process of closing the sale of the building for about $750,000 and plans to borrow another $750,000 for renovations.

Despite Mount Vernon's financial problems, he said, the city needs to fill the void left by the YMCA's closing.

"We can't afford not to do anything, given the problems facing this community," Davis said, referring to the lack of activities for young people and the rising crime rate.

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The three-story, 37,000-square-foot building has significant infrastructural problems, including a leaky roof and heating system that would have to be replaced, Davis said. Both the gym and indoor swimming pool also need repairs, he added.

Keisha Childs, who grew up in Mount Vernon, said the city has lost most of its recreational outlets -- including two other YMCA facilities and two Boys & Girls clubs -- which have closed in recent years, adding to the city's decline.

She enrolled her 15-month-old son in swimming lessons at the Mount Vernon YMCA but had to switch to the New Rochelle YMCA after the facility closed.

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"A lot of people in the community were disturbed when they heard the YMCA was closing," Childs said. "As a kid growing up here we had lots of recreational outlets, boxing, swimming and other sports. There's nothing for kids nowadays."

Not everyone, however, thinks the proposal is a good idea.

Mount Vernon Comptroller Maureen Walker, who oversees the city's finances, said the YMCA project will end up costing the city more than $1.5 million, and she criticized Davis for borrowing money to pay for the purchase and renovations.

"As far as I am concerned, it's an extremely poor decision," said Walker, a frequent critic of Davis' policies. "What the city is doing is continuing the borrowing ... that will force us to make very difficult decisions down the road."

She also questioned Mount Vernon's ability to operate a recreational facility given its fiscal situation, suggesting that staff and operating costs alone would drain the parks and recreation department's meager $1.1 million budget.

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There's also the question of whether the city is in a financial position to make such an investment.

To balance the 2013 budget, Mount Vernon raised property taxes by 6.15 percent and cut funding for several city departments and the library by more than $250,000 to close a projected $5.6 million revenue shortfall.

Nevertheless, Council President Yuhanna Edwards believes the money would be well-spent and will not only preserve a historic building but ensure that the city maintains what recreational offerings it has for its young people.

"That building has the only swimming pool in the city," Edwards said. "How can we not try to preserve it?"

He said the city will work with nonprofit groups that receive city funds, including the Youth Bureau, to provide volunteers and resources to help run the facility. City workers could perform some of the renovations, he suggested.

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Still, some council members complain that Davis has kept them in the dark about his plans for the facility.

"I don't even know the details yet," said Councilwoman Deborah Reynolds, who contends that the city doesn't have enough resources to run the facility. "He really hasn't discussed them with us."

Councilman Richard Thomas said he wants to make sure that the city maintains the dormitory-style housing units on the building's upper floors as a temporary shelter for people displaced by fires and other emergency situations.

He and other council members said the recreational center would keep kids out of trouble in a city where the crime rate has skyrocketed in recent years. Mount Vernon had 10 homicides in 2012, more than the two previous years combined.

In the end, council members could have little say on the plan. Under Mount Vernon's strong-mayor form of government the council has scant control over projects that the executive branch proposes, other than approving or disapproving.

YMCA officials said they struggled for years to keep up the aging facility but couldn't make it work. Kim Waldon, executive director of the Mount Vernon YMCA, said the cost of maintaining the old building weighed too heavily on the facility's dwindling endowment fund, which she said was bleeding upward of $300,000 a year.

The YMCA is operating out of a small, rented storefront at 14 S. Second Ave., where it offers after-school, college prep classes and continuing education classes for senior citizens, but no sports activities.

"We incurred some significant financial problems and just couldn't continue to function," explained Waldron, who took the helm of the city's YMCA about two years ago. "Unfortunately, we couldn't turn it around."

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